Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The eco-city - ineffective and authoritarian?

Milton Keynes - is it really so bad?
Ever since I started indulging my fascination with urban geography, I have experienced the promotion of certain selected European cities. Places help up as paragons of municipal virtue – places like Montpelier (pdf):

Planning for recent growth in Lille, Montpellier and Lyon began before explicit sustainable design agendas were common. Nevertheless, these cities exemplify a number of planning and design strategies that advance sustainability on the urban scale. Chief among these are: 1) promoting density and diverse use in the city center, 2) developing urban infrastructure and transit systems that conserve energy and preserve the quality of the urban core, 3) counteracting sprawl through the establishment of concentrated patterns of growth in the urban periphery, and 4) “urban recycling:” the adaptive re-use of existing built fabric and the reclamation of urban post-industrial sites.

For 25 years - since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster - Freiburg’s guiding principle has been the saving of natural resources. It now has car-free neighbourhoods (while we still tell ourselves that ‘would never work here’) and trams that run through green corridors. It has a football stadium where the stands double up as solar energy factories.

The Freiburg charter sets out twelve principles for ‘sustainable urbanism’, drawing together ideas of diversity, tolerance, walkability, good public transport, high quality design and more. It misses some things out - it doesn’t adequately address poverty and inequality, although its principles help to mitigate them - but it offers a very good way of thinking about cities.

Here are the wonders of ‘old world urbanism’, setting out the agenda for a carbon-neutral, eco-friendly, people-focused city. But is it quite as shiny as the pundits make out?
However, there is another face to Montpellier. Away from the modern developments lie older areas developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. A growing population led to urban sprawl, which took place outside of the city walls (e.g. The Gambetta). Here terraced, ‘2 up – 2 down’ housing is packed into narrow and cramped streets, lacking the open space of the Antigone. Even with the influx of high tech jobs, unemployment in Montpellier rose from 16.7% to 22.4% of the active population. A large majority of these are the North Africans who have made Montpellier their home, but cannot locate within the newer developments. Both lack adequate housing provision and high crime rates are now major problems in Montpellier. Social and ethnic polarisation is therefore highly evident.

Perhaps we are looking only at that which we wish to see rather than at what is actually happening:

It's a brave utopian vision - but, oddly, Rieselfeld is the last place I would want to live. Its housing blocks, built to a uniform height (usually four storeys), are reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc. Because the properties are all the same age, the place lacks character and charm. On the walk to my hotel, I pass an area of pitted waste ground reserved for the last phase in Rieselfeld's development, awaiting the excavators and cranes that accompany any such work in progress. It might be 'the gateway to the Black Forest' (as one resident put it), but the quarter lacks some of the facilities you might expect of a small provincial town.

And residents in the Freiberg tenements speak of the social control:

In Vauban, if Rieselfeld residents are to be believed, green living is compulsory. 'It jumps in your face a little,' Claudia Duppe warned me, 'and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, "Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic." It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.'

This is the wonder of ‘old world urbanism’ – charmless boxes to live in, neighbours who shun you for buying cheap food and 18,000 a year just to park your car. Indeed to avoid this charge you have to sign a declaration that you will never own a car – something I’m pretty sure plenty of residents ignore.

If this is a better world, it is a better world I don’t want. A dysfunctional, bossy world tossed between trendy urban obsession with ‘sustainability’ and the pretence that creating swanky inner city neighbourhoods can resolve the fact that there aren’t any jobs. Ignoring the simple fact that this economic renewal requires transport links – and that mean roads, cars, trucks and airports as well as trams and bicycle lanes.

There are certainly things to learn from these places – the conformist, Stepford sort of places that the Greens would have us believe is the future of urban living. But the lesson is as much a warning about how authoritarian and controlling the ‘sustainability’ agenda has become as it is about whether these places work any better than Milton Keynes, Atlanta or Calgary.


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